Proposed marijuana rules trigger critical debate on cannabis retail branding and consumer safety in Missouri
The most recent proposed rules drafted by the Department of Health & Senior Services (DHSS) published retail packaging rules for the Missouri cannabis industry that, if additional changes are not made will become effective on August 1, 2023.
The rules currently await the review of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR). The last step in the administrative rulemaking process before finalization. The Committee is expected to review the rules later this week, its jurisdiction expires on Friday.
While retailers have previously adopted rules around packaging restrictions (including font sizes and the required inclusion of the words “Marijuana”, or a “Marijuana-Infused Product”), these new proposed rules have some in the industry wondering how they’re going to stick out in the ever-growing crowd of cultivators and manufacturers in the eyes of retailers and consumers.
Coming off of over 20+ years of building brands and developing strategies to maintain and enhance loyalty to those brands, I, too, find myself wondering just how much of an impact this could have on brands’ ability to creatively engage patients and consumers in the retail space.
First, to understand the detailed proposal– as well as industry-leader counterpoints – is to read through and digest all 126 pages of information. Fortunately, I was able to reach out to a few industry leaders who can speak far more to the intricacies around what could be another new normal for packaging and design– specifically defined in the proposed rules below:
19 CSR 100-1.120 Packaging, Labeling, and Product Design
(1)(B)5.All marijuana product packaging design, including that for exit packaging, may only utilize—
- A). A single color;
- B). A product name;
- C). Text indicating whether the product is sativa, indica, or a hybrid;
- D). Up to two (2) logos or symbols of a different color or colors, whether images or text, including brand logos, provided that the widest part of a logo or symbol is no wider than the length or height, whichever is greater, of the word “Marijuana” on the packaging.
- E). A label required by this rule; and
- F). A QR code linking to a website where a purchaser can learn more about the product.
The “single-color rule”, (5.A.), would likely be the biggest branding game-changer here. Mandating the use of a single color in brands’ packaging and design will lead to products looking and feeling monotonous and mundane– much less give off a dull retail experience that couldn’t come at a worse time as Missouri welcomes a new customer base with the passage of recreational use.
Tony Billmeyer, CMO of Show-Me Organics, explains, “The notion that this standardized, monochromatic packaging would be safer for consumers is a total farce. Good design and continuity in packaging helps educate consumers, which is critical with a product like cannabis that has so many varying properties. Can you imagine a wine shop where all the labels have identical designs?“
Missouri cannabis industry veteran, Tammy Puyear of TPP Services, has similar feelings. “While the department continues to cite the proposed rules as in the interest of public health, the packaging regulations are going to stymie our Missouri brands significantly, while the intended effects on public safety are minuscule. This set of rules ((5) A-F) will result in selective compliance and is vague enough to allow little room for interpretation, as well as increased packaging costs to the operators. Pair that with consumer confusion at all of the similarities in product types and brands and you leave the door open to patient frustration and a little-to-no chance of fostering brand recognition or loyalty. Imagine a dispensary with product packaging on the shelves that are all restricted to one color coupled with the primary banner on all products being the word ‘MARIJUANA’. Suddenly, all products start to look the same regardless of the other brand elements,” Puyear says.
Another point of contention I’m hearing is around mandating the inclusion of “indica”, “sativa”, or “hybrid” on the packaging. As the founder of GreenFrame, an app that allows budtenders and customers to interact with a product in 3D via a QR code, I’d contend that labeling cannabis products as indica, sativa, or hybrid may not be as useful as focusing that attention to the effects and terpenes of the products they are using. If anything, wouldn’t that offer the consumer even more product knowledge, thereby leading to a more informed purchase decision which turns the spotlight more on patient safety?
“Plus,” says Chris Miller, corporate cannabis lawyer at Stock Legal, “With the new restrictions, the only way for a facility to distinguish their products is utilizing the two logos or symbols (5.D.). If that’s the case and the proposal passes, would those two labels already be spoken for, considering the already-required universal symbol diamond with THC and mg numbers (for infused products only) and the mandatory compliance label? If so, what would remain to distinguish products from one another– and a facility from one another– would be the utilization of a QR code. Within the QR code, you are welcome to provide truly valuable information about the brand, the specific product, the company ethos/methods/etc.”
Miller continues, “If we could use the QR code to provide all of the components of the required compliance labeling with text results, it would be much easier for a consumer to read on a screen rather than struggling to read text that is forced to be minuscule in order to meet the requirements for having the information on the packaging closest to the product. If we look at concentrate jars – the amount of real estate for ANY information of value on such a small space is non-existent.”
Compliance Officer for CAMP Cannabis, Chris Legrand, has strong feelings as well. “Despite Amendment 3’s best efforts to prevent cannabis advertising in Missouri from being more restricted than alcohol advertising, the DHSS is relying on a weak argument that cannabis packaging does not necessarily constitute advertising, and therefore packaging can be more restricted than advertising. Unfortunately for Missouri cannabis operators who understand the importance of utilizing packaging as an effective form of advertising, restrictions implemented on packaging at the end of July will significantly reduce opportunities for advertising, as well as brand differentiation and brand identity.”
It goes without saying that the proposed DHSS regulations could have a significant impact on the Missouri market. While it remains to be seen exactly how or if these regulations will be implemented, it’s important for businesses to have a plan in place and consider alternative strategies to adapt to this new environment.
To this end, Miller says, “Most brands have already received approval for their packaging in the past from DHSS. Hundreds, if not thousands of new packaging requests could bog down the system, leaving Missouri retailers, patients and consumers with significantly limited options.
Worse, plain packaging has the potential to cause confusion about what product is actually in the packaging and could cause accidental ingestion or consumption of an improper dosage for medical patients and recreational users. The proposed rules are vastly different from the previous packaging requirements and will undoubtedly cause facilities to incur extra cost in materials and labor in order to conform with the new regulations– a cost that will likely be passed down to the consumers and patients in Missouri.”
The hope of the industry is that JCAR will take into account the feedback provided by stakeholders and make any necessary adjustments to ensure that consumers are protected while still allowing businesses and brands to thrive. Both are vital to the success of the cannabis industry in Missouri, and both deserve the appropriate attention and stakeholder input to get it right.
Tim Pickett is an accomplished brand builder and the owner and founder of GreenFrame, an app that allows customers and budtenders to interact with cannabis products, examine its characteristics in 3D, and learn all about a single product with the scan of a QR code. With over 25 years of experience in marketing and branding and a proven track record of successful process and product launches, Tim now focuses on empowering like-minded colleagues and patients with interactive product information to aid in their journeys of wellness through cannabis.